To explore the effects of swallowing disorders, Tiffany Tram’s focus is on the detail
by Paul Fraumeni

Most of us swallow hundreds of times a day and never give that act a second thought.  But a stroke or a brain condition like Parkinson’s can limit a person’s ability to swallow. Some people cannot swallow at all.  You can imagine how hard that would make a person’s life.  

Rosemary Martino is an expert in swallowing disorders, known formally as dysphagia. She is a professor in the Faculty of Medicine at U of T, a scientist at the Toronto Western Research Institute of the University Health Network and the Canada Research Chair in Swallowing Disorders.  

Martino’s job is to tackle the challenges created by dysphagia, to assess the condition in its many forms and to find ways to help people live with it.  

And that requires a lot of detail. That’s where Tiffany Tram comes in.

Tram is a research coordinator for Martino’s current study on the medical outcomes of dysphagia that measures the complications caused by the condition. The study focuses on the effects of a swallowing disorder on nutrition, the lungs and on a patient’s mental health.

“The hard part of this research is that we have to make sure everything we find is translatable to all patients. That’s why it is important that I find a variety of patients with dysphagia. We want to collect unbiased facts, not generalities.”

Finding the facts involves Tram securing patients’ permission to include them in the study, working with them in completing a detailed questionnaire and later organizing the findings for Martino and her team to analyze.

Tram is not new to science. She holds a BSc in  Life Sciences from McMaster University and as an undergrad, she did research in evolutionary biology. “But that was peering into a microscope and looking at worms. Working with people is a lot different,” she says, smiling.

 She also has a diploma from the Michener Institute that qualifies her to work as a respiratory therapist— a job she does on weekends at Toronto General Hospital. She loves her clinical work as an RT, so much so that “when the research opportunity with Professor Martino came up, I was skeptical. I didn’t want to lose my clinical background. But I had always had an interest in research and wanted to see if I liked it. Thanks to this experience, I’ve found I do.”

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